Monday, November 1, 2010
“It’s hard to see the forest for the trees.”
This quote traditionally refers to someone who gets mired in details but in Modoc County I believe this proverb has a whole new meaning. Thirty years ago, Western Juniper was believed to occupy 2.5 million acres in eastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, and northeastern California, combined. Currently, that estimate is over 6 million acres for northeastern California alone.
The expansion of Western Juniper has led to the degradation of forests, range lands, riparian areas, watersheds, and wildlife habitat. Juniper has encroached on what is historically sage steppe ecosystem- the pristine mosaic of bunchgrasses and sagebrush that the Great Basin is known for, among other things.
In pre-settlement times, before 1870 or so, juniper was one part of the entire landscape. Juniper trees were found on rock outcroppings where fire couldn’t reach. But increasing human occupation led to fire suppression and the spread of juniper habitat. This was exacerbated in 1944 by Smokey the Bear and the Forest Service slogan, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
Junipers have taken over aspen groves, by sucking water from these forest oases. A typical juniper tree uses 50-60 gallons of water per day. Junipers also provide perches for predators, such as hawks and ravens, who prey on sage grouse and pygmy rabbits, increasing the depredation of sensitive species.
The juniper trees also secrete chemicals which reduce under-story plant life within the drip line of the tree. This under-story would typically be composed of forbs, perennial bunchgrasses, and sage brush but is now likely to contain cheatgrass and Medusahead, two highly invasive annual grasses.
Now, the largest problem is how to rid the landscape of encroaching junipers. Modoc County needs to cut between 50-60,000 acres of juniper trees per year just to keep acreage stagnant; not the old growth or pre-settlement trees but those junipers that are encroaching in areas where they shouldn’t be.
It is costly to do hand removal but mechanical removal brings a myriad of its own problems. Heavy machinery can cause ruts in wet conditions. Increasing numbers of trees on the ground leads to fire loading.
How do you dispose of so many trees? Leaving them on the ground will not alleviate predator issues unless branches are lopped off. The biomass markets are great distances away from many core cutting areas. Additionally, there is just too much to be cleaned up by wood cutters.
Let’s face it. A weed is a plant out of place and juniper are definitely out of their place. Private landowners in conjunction with public agencies need to start fighting the trees that are taking over our forest, range lands, and watersheds.
Editor's Note: As a service to our readers we will be publishing columns by our regular contributors to the Modoc Independent News. Missy Merrill is a nutritionist and reproductive physiologist by education, a farm advisor by title, and a rancher/cowboygirl by birth and marriage. She has spent much of the last 20 years roaming around the west, going to school and working on ranches in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and now California. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do necessarily reflect the position of the Modoc Independent News.
Posted by BMarch at 8:01 PM